Sir John Monash (1865-1931) was an outstanding Australian soldier, engineer, and administrator.
On June 27, 1865, John Monash was born at West Melbourne, Victoria, the only son of Louis Monash and his wife Berthe, née Manasse, Jewish migrants from East Prussia (Poland). After schooling at Jerilderie, New South Wales, where his father kept a store, John attended Scotch College, Melbourne, of which he was equal dux (equalled the highest marks made by others in his courses) and won the mathematics exhibition at the 1881 public examinations.
Monash failed the first year of his arts and engineering course at the University of Melbourne, being engrossed in private reading, the theater, and loss of religious faith. He then completed two years, though preoccupied with editing the Melbourne University Review, piano performances, and chess. But, deeply distressed by his mother's death, he abandoned his course in 1885. He obtained employment building bridges, then in control of construction of a suburban railway, followed by employment with the Melbourne Harbor Trust. He resumed his university work part time, completing his B.A., B.E. in 1891, and LL.B. in 1893. On April 8, 1891, he married Hannah Victoria Moss, by whom he had one daughter.
After militia experience from 1884 in the university company, quickly rising to sergeant, he joined the North Melbourne Battery, Garrison Artillery, which he was to command from 1896 to 1908 as major.
Monash formed a civil engineering partnership in 1894 with J. T. N. Anderson. They made only a precarious living until Monash began appearing in the courts as an advocate on engineering matters and later was employed as an adviser and negotiator by large contractors. The firm also built bridges. They lost all their capital, however, after an eccentric legal judgment in favor of a defaulting client, and until 1905 Monash remained deeply in debt. He was eventually saved by developing his local rights to the Monier patent for reinforced concrete construction. The companies for major building construction which he now formed and managed became highly profitable. By 1912 Monash was a well-todo Melbourne businessman at the head of his profession, a radical president of the Victorian Institute of Engineers, a university councillor, and a part-time lecturer.
From 1908 Monash was Victorian commandant of the Australian Intelligence Corps (militia). He became closely involved in staff work and educated himself further on all matters military. In 1913 and 1914 he commanded an infantry brigade as colonel. On the outbreak of World War I he was appointed to command the 4th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. During the Gallipoli campaign his record was not especially distinguished, but few senior officers did better. He was promoted to major general in command of the 3rd Australian Division, trained it in 1916, and led it ably in 1917 at Messines and in the battles leading up to Passchendaele, and in early 1918 led it in combatting the German offensive. From May, as lieutenant-general, he was corps commander during the battle of Hamel and the succession of great victories from August 8, including Mont St. Quentin, until the breaking of the Hindenburg line.
Monash's reputation remains as the greatest Australian soldier, remarkably unexposed to adverse criticism. He was fortunate in taking over a superb Australian corps at the decisive turning-point of the war, but his task could hardly have been better done. His particular qualities were his capacity to work harmoniously with staff, to assert forcefully requirements to superiors, to fight for recognition for the A.I.F., and to demonstrate to the troops that, so rarely in that war, he was right behind them. He was articulate in explaining battle plans, with extraordinary attention to detail and provisions for avoiding unnecessary risks. His military achievement, given his background as a civilian Jew of Prussian origin, remains astounding. He has sometimes been spoken of as the outstanding Allied general, but he was never tested at the highest levels of command. In 1919 he wrote The Australian Victories in France in 1918; some of his war letters were published in 1934. He was promoted to general in 1929.
After the war Monash was chairman of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria with the task of harnessing brown coal for the use of industry, then one of the most important national tasks. He succeeded triumphantly, building an institution which for a long time was an outstandingly successful state instrumentality. He was the unchallenged spokesman for returned soldiers; in charge of the Special Constabulary Force during the police strike of 1923 and chairman of the subsequent royal commission; university vice chancellor from 1923; Jewish spokesman and an active Zionist. He brusquely dismissed requests around 1930 to lead a right-wing coup. Monash died on October 8, 1931. His funeral was the most largely attended Australia had known.
In the 1920s Monash was unquestionably regarded as the greatest living Australian—a tall poppy who was never cut down. Essentially he was a most gifted administrator; a man of extraordinarily wide knowledge, experience, and scientific and cultural interests; devoted to public service; and eventually, nearly all ambitions achieved, a man who wore his distinction modestly.
Additional information and a bibliography can be found in G. Serle, John Monash. A Biography (Melbourne, 1982).